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Shoe Design Offers a Trojan Horse for Problem Solving with Design Thinking

Suzie Boss

Journalist and PBL advocate
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Design thinking session led by IDEO founder David Kelley.

"Design your own shoe." That's what high school students thought they were signing up to do when they volunteered for an immersive experience in design thinking.

Truth be told, the course description was not quite accurate. Shoe design "is really a Trojan horse for solving problems in a new way," acknowledged Chad Faber, director of the Knight Family Scholars Program at Catlin Gabel School, an independent K-12 school in Portland, Oregon. He facilitated the four-day, hands-on learning experience along with Greg Bamford (@gregbamford) from the Leading is Learning collaborative in Seattle. Several more Catlin Gabel staffers took part to learn by doing, building a cohort of teachers with design chops.

As a strategy for problem solving, design thinking is quickly gaining a foothold in a variety of K-12 settings. I wrote about design thinking at the Henry Ford Learning Institute in this previous Edutopia post.

Watching this class unfold in Portland, I was reminded that design thinking also offers a perfect vehicle for connecting students with their community.

Understanding User Needs

One of the first assignments students tackled: Hit the streets, food carts, and shopping malls of Portland to interview complete strangers about their shoes. What problems do their shoes pose? Which factors influence their footwear choices? This exercise in empathy took students out of their comfort zone and got them thinking about the needs of specific users (other than themselves).

One all-boy team, for instance, was surprised to learn from a middle-aged woman that she carries an extra pair of shoes to work each day. Her wish: a shoe that's comfortable enough for walking from home to bus to office, but dressy enough for a professional setting.

Another team was inspired by talking with an eco-conscious consumer who bikes to his office job. With this user in mind, they started to imagine a dress shoe made of lightweight, sustainable materials that could be folded up to slip into a biker's pocket or backpack.

Expert Insights

As students worked through the process of researching, brainstorming, and prototyping their solutions, they had opportunities to learn from some of the world's leading shoe designers. Many of these experts happen to live and work in Oregon, home to Nike, Adidas America, Keen, and other top names in athletic and outdoor footwear. They didn't hesitate to share their time and insights with students.

Faber says educators can find willing experts in any community by connecting a design challenge with local industries, traditions, or issues. "If we were doing this in Maine," he reflected, "we might focus on lobster fishing. In Portland, it's shoes."

D'Wayne Edwards was formerly the footwear design director for Nike's blockbuster Jordan Brand. He had an illustrious career as a designer before opening his one-of-a-kind footwear academy in Portland. Pensole offers an intensive "master class" in shoe design, attracting applicants from across the country who aspire to be the next generation of shoe designers, regardless of socioeconomic background.

Edwards shared his story and insights with Catlin Gabel students, and then hosted their final pitch session at his Pensole headquarters.

Edwards started drawing shoes when he was an 11-year-old growing up in South Central Los Angeles. He won his first shoe design contest at 17, beating professionals and college students. The prize was a job offer that he was still too young to accept. After high school, he started working as a file clerk at L.A. Gear but earned his way to a design job by submitting a sketch a day.

The shoe guru peppered his talk with advice and anecdotes. A few highlights:

  • "Try to become the person you're designing for." In designing a custom basketball shoe for Carmelo Anthony, the NBA all-star, Edwards studied the player's family history, personal likes, playing style, and even the story behind each of his tattoos. For more design inspiration, Edwards went to the local zoo and watched how jaguars (whose dimensions approximate Melo's 6'8", 280 pounds) use their paws to move with agility and power. Look closely at the sole of the Melo shoe and you'll see a cat-paw design.
  • "You don't notice good design. Bad design? You complain about it." Edwards helped students understand the difference between art and design. "As an artist, you draw what you see. As designer, you create what doesn't exist."
  • "Never let anybody outwork you. Act like someone's chasing you." That's the mantra that propelled Edwards's career, and it's the work ethic he expects of students at Pensole Academy. The secret, he added, is that doing what you love "doesn't feel like work. I'd do this for free."

Lasting Lessons

On Day 4 of their design experience, students pitched their prototypes to a panel of local experts. They got authentic feedback from the pros, including questions about choices of materials and price points. One team got a shout-out from the experts for carefully documenting their problem-solving process with detailed sketches.

Afterward, Edwards acknowledged the courage it took for students to deliver their pitches. That's another quality designers need to develop, he said, along with teamwork.

As students reflected on what they gained from the experience, several brought up challenges of collaboration. "We had to learn to compromise," one student said about his team, "and stay positive, even if you hated someone's idea at first." Another said he learned how to redirect teammates. "It's annoying if they're not on task and you are."

As the fast-paced week came to a close, Faber encouraged students to think of themselves as campus leaders "who can teach the design process to others. You know all the steps now."

Problems in Search of Solutions

The shoe design challenge was a natural -- and fun -- fit for this introductory design experience, but the process of design thinking can be applied to a wide range of serious issues. In South London, for instance, educator Ewan Mcintosh recently introduced design thinking to youth who are designing community solutions to knife and gun violence.

Has your school explored design thinking as a strategy to teach problem solving? What challenges have your students tackled? Please share in the comments.

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Comments (11) Sign in or register to comment Follow Subscribe to comments via RSS

chrisflanagan's picture
Student Experience Lab Director

Great story. We've been using design-thinking and participatory design to give students the opportunity to re-think their own educational experiences. Much at the higher-ed level, but last year we applied it to the younger set.

We even put together a Student Designer How-To Kit so anyone can do it. PDF here:

I truly believe we need to do more to develop the capabilities of students to become innovators. And I know design can improve the quality of experience for students. More important though, students themselves should play an active role in education innovation. If we do that, we democratize our educational system.

Eric White's picture
Eric White
Lead Teacher of Project-Based Learning and Design Thinking in Columbia, SC

Thanks Suzie for highlighting this unique experience. Greg does top notch work in the area of design thinking. We have been devoted to using design thinking as our fuel to drive PBL for a number of years now. We'd love to share our most recent endevour, which challenged students to repurpose discarded materials for community impact:

You can also find out more about our work with design thinking by visiting

Thanks again Suzie.

Joanne Trombley's picture
Joanne Trombley
Technolgy and Engineering Educator and Dept. Chair from West Chester, PA

Technology and Engineering Educators have been using this approach to teaching for decades. We teach the "T & E" in STEM via the engineering design process. Check out this site for more information:
The unfortunate thing is that in most school districts, technology and engineering education is not a core course, but rather an extra subject that students generally only have for a very brief period of time, if at all. Our society needs to make it a core subject in all schools so that all students become technologically literate!

Anna Pilloton's picture
Anna Pilloton
Program Coordinator

Studio H, a design/build program which got its start in North Carolina, and now calls Berkeley, California home, celebrated its premiere this weekend of the documentary film, "If You Build It", at the Full Frame Film Festival in Raleigh, North Carolina.

From the Full Frame film festival website:

If You Build It: "Designers Emily Pilloton and Matthew Miller bring their radical and innovative educational program to Bertie County, North Carolina, transforming people and place over the course of a turbulent and inspiring year. Each season brings a new set of challenges, both prescribed and unexpected, and the resourceful instructors (and their industrious students) must apply the principles of their curriculum--design, build, transform--to their lives as well as to their projects. Earnest, determined, and rousing, the film and its subjects, raise questions of self-reliance, citizenship, and community-building in its most literal interpretation."

Read more about how by empowering students with design thinking can impact a community:

Greg Bamford's picture
Greg Bamford
Director, Leading is Learning

I've been blown away by the response to this article - thanks, Suzie, for visiting! It was fun to help create and lead this course along w/ Chad and Catlin Gabel School.

For me, part of this story is how we build capacity in our schools around new practices like design thinking. This story started when Chad attended our five-day training, Leadership+Design Summer. After he got that hands-on experience, we helped him design this course at his school - training another four teachers along the way. As you can tell from the article, now he's good to go and continue momentum independently.

Our 2013 Leadership+Design Summer is still accepting educators to participate - it's a 9-day hands-on training, and we work with you during the following year to implement in your school. (Just like we did with Chad.)

I'm hoping this article will inspire others to follow Chad's lead and participate in professional development that's different: hands-on and long-term.

John Drew's picture
John Drew
Academic Dean, Science Teacher, Concord Academy

What a wonderful experience for students! This is exactly what our schools should be doing more.

A colleague and I taught an interdisciplinary class last spring on the environmental history of Boston. We had the students design a walking tour, and used the Freedom Trail and the Public Garden audio tour as models. Authors of historical monographs worked with the class, as did a former Boston Redevelopment Authority Director. The students created a ten-stop walking tour based on the city's history of land use and land creation. Great fun involving close collaboration with a colleague, excellent student teamwork, and authentic engagement with a great city.

Matthew Silva's picture

I wrote my thesis paper last summer about design thinking and design education in k-12 last year, inpired by the work of David Kelly, Sam Mockbee, Emily Pilloton and many others. I have been developing a human centered design build curriculum for my middle school students over the past few years. Last year I had my students' practice design thinking and humanitarian architecture to re-imagine the derelict New York State Pavilion from the 1964-65 worlds fair
This year we are designing and building parklets to expand pedestrian spaces for the front of our building.
It is an authentic and engaging educational experience.

Suzie Boss's picture
Suzie Boss
Journalist and PBL advocate

Eric, John, and Matthew,
Thanks so much for sharing examples of how you're using design thinking in diverse settings and content areas. Once students and teachers learn this process, they can apply it to an almost infinite range of problems.

Mary Cantwell's picture
Mary Cantwell
Educator, Atlanta, GA

Mount Vernon, an innovative independent school in Atlanta, Georgia launched the Center for Design Thinking in 2010. Inspired and modeled after the Stanford approach, our students identify real world issues, collaborate through research, test their results and produce prototypes to impact the world. Our students' first design thinking challenge focused on how might we create a classroom to better support 21st century learning. Today it is called the lab and it has become our innovation hub within the Lower School. Here a link to our i.Design Lab picture blog to see more DEEP design thinking demonstrations. Gradually we have implemented design thinking within the middle and upper schools, and last summer several of our teachers participated in Stanford's d school summer bootcamp experience.
In the spring of 2012, we hosted our inaugural Design Thinking Summit. Sponsored by Turner Entertainment Networks, teachers from Atlanta's public and private school communities participated in this sold out event. Many notable experts in the field of design thinking shared their experiences. Some of the headliners were Kim Saxe, The Director of the Innovation Lab at the Nueva School, Chris Kasabach the Chair of K*lab, conceived and started at Harvard Kennedy School, and Leonard Medlock, an associate editor with EdSurge and co-founder of Inner City Educational technologies.

This summer in June we're hosting //fuse, a 2-day conference orchestrated by our School and Leading is Learning, a laboratory for adaptive leadership based in Seattle, Washington--led by none other than Greg Bamford, the very one Susie Boss features in her article above. At //fuse participants will participate in a design thinking process over two days-- gaining firsthand experience with the core processes at the heart of creative collaboration.

//fuse if for anyone interested in the future of education. Teachers, students, and members of the educational community are welcome to participate and experience //fuse. For more information and details:

Aaron Wilson-Ahlstrom's picture
Aaron Wilson-Ahlstrom
Assoc. Director of Curric. and Instruction at Henry Ford Learning Institute

Thanks for another great article, Suzie!

There are a number of organizations now leading Design Thinking workshops for teachers, and I wanted chime in to say that the Henry Ford Learning Institute is again offering our Design Thinking workshops for educators this summer (like the one Suzie refers to in the article she links to above). The 3-day workshop provides an in-depth, experiential introduction to Design Thinking and how it can be used to engage students in challenging projects that foster innovation and creative confidence. Facilitated by staff from HFLI and teachers from our network of Henry Ford Academies, the workshops provide access to curriculum materials and supported planning time to usnre educators can implement what they've learned when they return to their own schools in the fall.

More info can be found at:

Here are some of the things participants in last year's workshops had to say about their experience:

"I would highly recommend this event to anyone serious about Design Thinking."
"I feel like I can truly teach the design process to my students and help them apply it to life."
"I now see through a Design Thinking eye and it leaves me in awe."

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